Challenging Textual Hierarchies as a New Teacher - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

Challenging Textual Hierarchies as a New Teacher

This post was written by guest author Tim Shaffer. 


As a developing English teacher, I often look back on my own educational experiences and find both practices to emulate as well as areas for improvement. One place where I see potential for incoming educators to expand upon methods of the past is in the choice of what texts to include within their curricula.

There exists a well-established, yet typically overlooked, hierarchy of texts that secures the literary “canon” as the pinnacle of English classroom learning, often to the detriment of other, seemingly less important texts. By neglecting the kinds of texts students are most likely to be interacting with in their lives beyond school, we send the message that what they find interesting and what we deem important are two different things. Not only can this have a negative impact on students’ attitudes and levels of engagement, it can effectively exclude some students from meaningful learning through other avenues of literacy.

While the literary merit and cultural value of the canon is generally taken for granted, it is important for students and teachers alike to analyze how historically dominant perspectives and values have contributed to some texts being elevated to canonical status over others. Borsheim-Black, Macaluso, and Petrone remind us that often, the ideologies perpetuated—about race, religion, sexuality, and physical and mental capabilities—reflect those in power. By being critical in our presentation of canonical texts, we can provide students with the benefits of reading these narratives while still holding authors accountable to modern values and perspectives.

For example, when teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I could ask students to question how the representation of African American characters would be different if their perspectives were given more prominence in the story. When reading The Merchant of Venice, students can engage with literary criticism that addresses the issues of homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism within the play.

The canon is also prone to accessibility issues with modern readers: the language, structure, and cultural references of the texts can act as obstacles that prevent students from digging more deeply into the greater themes at play. The approachability of other forms of media should be considered a strength of canon alternatives, as the same educational rigor may be applied to less conventional texts in a way that better focuses students’ interests and attention.

For example, podcasts can be used to great effect within the English classroom. The production value and auditory nature of podcasts can make them more attractive to most students than a written article covering similar content. Simultaneous listening and reading of a podcast transcript can also help struggling readers follow along, with the added benefit of giving English language learner students an opportunity to focus on pronunciation. English teacher Michael Godsey notes in The Atlantic, “as decoding becomes more automatized and texts become more complex, listening comprehension becomes the primary component for learning language” (2016).

Graphic novels are another source of relatively untapped teaching and learning potential. Compelling nonfiction graphic novels are a great way to address the emphasis the Common Core State Standards place on nonfiction. Librarian Jenny McClusky argues that these texts have the combined appeal of using imagery to help tell true-to-life stories that students find relatable.

Graphic novels allow students to use their visual literacy skills to pick up on cues they might not otherwise recognize in a words-only format, welcoming more readers to join in critical thinking and class discussions. Some nonfiction graphic novels to consider are Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, the March trilogy by John Lewis, and The Elements of Style (Illustrated), by William Strunk, E.B. White, and Maria Kalman.

By using texts that are less likely to bore students, teachers can provide them with the opportunity to practice reading skills that are transferable to the canonical texts they will likely encounter on standardized tests, as educator Julia Torres outlines.

The most effective learning happens in environments where students feel the sense of safety and belonging that comes from being part of a community. In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, Zaretta Hammond notes that physiologically, our capacity to create and store memories is limited when we experience the stress of unwelcoming surroundings, and so our ability to learn suffers.

Connections must first be made between people before they can be made from preexisting knowledge to new concepts; a powerful way to welcome students’ full identities into the English classroom is to validate the types of texts they gravitate toward and position them as literary equals to the traditional canon. I believe this is a crucial element in getting students comfortable enough with each other and course content to create collaboratively and share their personal insights and opinions.

A respect for, and deeper understanding of, our shared humanity should be fostered through the study of texts from all levels of the current hierarchy. These differentiated texts can accommodate multiple learning styles, implement the use of technology, and draw students toward a more inclusive perspective. I hope to be part of teacher movements that value the literary merit of a much broader scope of texts, and I encourage others entering the field and established teachers alike to look beyond the canon as well.



Tim Shaffer is a graduate student at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He studies English education. After graduation, he will begin his career as a secondary public school teacher.